Beyond labels: what are the salient features of lesson study and learning study?


Source: Educational Action Research, 27:4, 543-563

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

The purpose of this paper is to identify the major features of popular teacher professional development models, Lesson Study and Learning Study, to explore the notion that they are different labels for the same thing.
The similarities and differences between the two approaches have been compared by reviewing relevant literature that presents empirical cases of Lesson Study and Learning Study.

The comparison reveals the underlying differences between the two approaches under the four broad themes identified from the literature.
Lesson Study has a long history in its place of origin – Japan – as a teacher professional development model to improve student learning (Arani, Fukaya, and Lassegard 2010) and has been widely implemented all over the world since Stigler and Hiebert (1999) first introduced it to the USA. Learning Study, which is based on Variation Theory (Marton and Booth 1997), has been developed by a group of Swedish and Hong Kong researchers and has been popular for nearly two decades in Sweden and Hong Kong (Lo, Pong, and Chik 2005; Lo and Marton 2012).
In this study, the following two questions have been raised to explore the salient features of Lesson Study and Learning Study.
(1) How are the processes of teacher collaboration and teacher learning framed in the conduct of Lesson Study and Learning Study?
(2) How is student learning addressed in the process of conducting Lesson Study and Learning Study

For the purpose of the comparison, papers which are empirical in nature and include clear explanations of research methods and detailed information of research procedures and findings were selected for review.
The review focused mainly on in-service teacher education.
Research in English language publications from around 2000 to 2017 was surveyed, and a total of 166 papers on Lesson Study and 68 on Learning Study and several key monographs were selected and reviewed.

Findings and discussion
The review of the literature demonstrates that both Lesson Study and Learning Study, with a developmental orientation towards instruction, are similar approaches for improving instruction and student learning.
Nonetheless, there are subtle differences in terms of their points of departure, their perceptions about learning, and the focal points of the pedagogical design.
Thus, it would be unwise to see them as similar.
A key way of appreciating this is to compare the strengths and weaknesses of the two approaches in terms of teacher collaboration and student learning.
With regard to teacher collaboration and learning, the intention of Lesson Study is to provide a structure to support teachers’ professional development in which they work collaboratively, with external advisors in some cases, to create meaningful and effective lessons for improving instruction and student learning.

During the Lesson Study process, teachers share their teaching ideas based on available resources and draw on their personal practical experiences to plan and try out lessons.
They incorporate various teaching strategies in their instructional design with the aim of enhancing student collaboration and motivation to learn.
Although there seems no specific learning theory emphasized in Lesson Study, a collaborative culture among teachers would be developed when they work together to examine their instructional practice.
With the focus on developing teacher practical knowledge, Lesson Study improves instruction in terms of teachers’ knowledge and beliefs, which contributes to changes in the practices, and finetuning the teaching-learning resources.
Therefore, Lesson Study can be regarded as a vehicle for developing teacher learning communities as it is conducted on the basis of principles of collegiality and mutual learning for the development of a learning community (Lieberman 2009).
In Learning Study, similar to Lesson Study, teachers value learning together to generate pedagogical knowledge, but it differs in that it is guided by an explicit theory which seems to lead to more fruitful teacher collaboration as summarized by Cheung and Wong (2014) in their review of relevant literature.
Learning Study, as guided by the conceptual framework of Variation Theory, provides teachers with a common language (such as ‘object of learning’, ‘critical aspects’, ‘patterns of variation’, etc.) in planning, refining and evaluating lessons and students’ learning.
Although the domination of one theory and the rigid procedure could be construed as too mechanical, some studies of Learning Study illustrate that application of Variation Theory in the pedagogical design is compatible with various types of teaching strategies (such as cooperative learning, enquiry-based learning, roleplaying, etc.) to be adopted.

In sum, in Lesson Study, teachers’ professional growth is attributed to having more opportunities to share practices and experiences, raise awareness of student learning, thus enhancing their subject knowledge.
However, in Learning Study, teachers use Variation Theory as a guiding principle for planning and refining the research lesson to improve student learning.
The adoption of an explicit theory provides teachers a common conceptual lens to facilitate discussions and collaboration among teachers which results in their own professional growth.
The comparison regarding student learning illustrates that Lesson Study tends to focus on a broader theme and long-term goals of education whereas Learning Study often focuses on a narrower one but is geared towards the broader aims of the curriculum.
With regard to the quality of students’ understanding the subject matter, Lesson Study tends to be based on teachers’ observation and perceived student learning outcomes, whereas Learning Study is based on evidence gathered from the pre- and post-tests as well as student interviews.
In terms of teachers’ different ways of handling a topic, both approaches can contribute to teacher professional development in terms of more opportunities for collaboration and reflection in Lesson Study while in Learning Study, teachers are empowered with a conceptual framework for instructional design and reflection. With regard to pedagogical design, Lesson Study seems to be more flexible as it is not solely informed by one single theory.
Therefore, Lesson Study is more accessible to teachers and, as a result, has been adopted in many contexts.
Learning Study, however, is governed by one single theory (Variation Theory). Therefore, receptivity to the theory is a pre-requisite which may limit its dissemination.

Arani, S. M. R., K. Fukaya, and J. P. Lassegard. 2010. “Lesson Study as Professional Culture in Japanese Schools: An Historical Perspective on Elementary Classroom Practices.” Japan Review 22: 171–200
Cheung, W. M., and W. Y. Wong. 2014. “Does Lesson Study Work? A Systematic Review on the Effects of Lesson Study and Learning Study on Teachers and Students.” International Journal for Lesson and Learning Studies 3 (2): 137–149. doi:10.1108/IJLLS-05-2013-0024
Lieberman, J. 2009. “Reinventing Teacher Professional Norms and Identities: The Role of Lesson Study and Learning Communities.” Professional Development in Education 35 (1): 83–99. doi:10.1080/13674580802264688
Lo, M. L., and F. Marton. 2012. “Towards a Science of the Art of Teaching.” International Journal for Lesson and Learning Studies 1 (1): 7–22
Lo, M. L., W. Y. Pong, and P. M. P. Chik. 2005. For Each and Everyone: Catering for Individual Differences through Learning Study. Hong Kong University Press:Hong Kong
Marton, F., and S. Booth. 1997. Learning and Awareness. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers
Stigler, J., and J. Hiebert. 1999. The Teaching Gap. New York, NY: Free Press 

Updated: Apr. 19, 2020